Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Editing: Secret Sin Series #3

I have this thing about editing. I think it’s underrated and overlooked. I think the general consensus is that editing is sort of the “easier part,” the “winding down.” Just a few brief drafts, maybe a bit of time with the betas, a final polish…voila. Complete.

Anyone who’s really done a thorough edit knows otherwise. Editing means draft, after draft, after draft or revisions. Every time you think you’re done, you discover you’re not.

I recently heard this story about Michelangelo. He took these huge slabs of marble and went at them with mallets and hammers, hewing out a rough shape. Then he took smaller and smaller chisels, working at this shape, bringing out the features and the details. After that, he took sandpaper and began scuffing off the edges, smoothing corners, using fine grains to polish the marble. Was he done? No. His final step was to take a velvet cloth and rub the marble until it shined.

Can you imagine rubbing all the curves and crevices of a life-sized marble statue with a velvet cloth?

When we write a story, it’s like going at a chunk of marble with our hammers, trying to release the image inside. We rewrite it a few times – the chisels – and then we go ahead and edit it – the sandpaper. That’s where most people stop. But there’s still that velvet cloth, that final step, the one that makes the Big Difference.

But editing is confusing. I’ll admit that. It’s hard to find any one resource that really covers all the aspects of what to do and what to look for. To avoid this secret sin, you need to be comprehensive. Here’s how to do a real, thorough, velvet-cloth edit.


1: Your Plot and Characters.

Analyze the development and resolution of all your plot threads, your character arcs, their “relatability”, the importance of each chapter/scene, and the flow. Make sure your theme and style are consistent. Be ruthless.

2: The Line Edit.

Look for simplicity and coherency. Eliminate infodumps and unnecessary back-story by weaving these pieces into your narrative. Use the same point of view and tense. Save nothing but the cream. Tighten your sentences, murder your darlings, cut your adverbs. Rinse, lather, and repeat.

3: The Hard-copy and Peer Critique.

Print out your manuscript and send copies to your critique group, your beta-readers, your writer friends, your librarian…everyone you can. Take your own hard copy and go over it with a red pen. Read it aloud. Incorporate the main edits from your critics and send them a revised sample, if possible. (Wax on, wax off. Wax on…)

4: Tithe

Cut out 10% of your entire novel. Yup. I said it. 10%. Depending on how “finished” you words are you may need to cut more – 15, 20, even 25% - or less, say 5%. If it’s not a struggle it’s not enough. This tithing is most effective if you go through scene-by-scene versus chapter-by-chapter, but the overall effect should be the same. By the time you finish, every word should be indispensable.

5: Polish

Go through and smooth over any rough edges you may have created. Replace weak verbs or nouns with stronger ones. Splurge just the teensiest bit. Make sure all five senses are tingling.

Print out a final hard copy and go over it once more, enjoying it, scanning for any typos or last minute things you need to change.


After all that work, it’s hard knowing whether you’re done or not. It may seem that every time you turn around there’s another typo leering at you. How do you know when you’re finished?

This is the one thing that works for me: I know I’m finished when changing something only makes it worse.


-Creative A


David Isaak said...

Alas, I wish I could cut 10%. In fact, my "final drafts" tend to grow by 10% after my editor gets hold of them. For me, editing involves selective putting in, and not much cutting.

In my most recent novel, I lopped out an entire chapter I thought I could do without. My editor told me something was missing. Guess what was missing. Yep. That chapter.

But I trim like crazy while writing the first draft, so I'm not sure I'm anything like 'normal.'

Creative A said...

Well, that's the thing. I've heard people swear by that rule. but it depends a lot on the individual writer. I know some writers who have to cut by 20%. Whatever hurts, right?

Sesselja said...

For those who want to learn more about editing, I can recommend 'Self-editing for Fiction Writers'. A great book for those of us who feel overwhelmed and bewildered by the whole editing task.

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